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The Lost Tomb of Jesus

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The Lost Tomb of Jesus was a Discovery Channel TV special which aired on Sunday March 4th, 2007, amidst a lot of media attention following a press conference on February 26th. It was directed by Simcha Jacobovici, with executive producer James Cameron. This film claims to report the recovery of the Jesus’ family tomb and his actual remains. Are these claims legitimate? And if so, what do they mean for the Christian Faith?

Importance of this claim

The claim being made by The Lost Tomb of Jesus and the book The Jesus Family Tomb is not simply a claim that Jesus Christ’s tomb has been found but his bones as well. If indeed Jesus Christ’s bones have been found then it would falsify the resurrection--and the Apostle Paul made it quite clear what this would mean to the Christian faith.

1 Corinthians 15: 12. Now if Christ be preached that he rose from the dead, how say some among you that there is no resurrection of the dead?
13. But if there be no resurrection of the dead, then is Christ not risen:
14. And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.
15. Yea, and we are found false witnesses of God; because we have testified of God that he raised up Christ: whom he raised not up, if so be that the dead rise not.
16. For if the dead rise not, then is not Christ raised:
17. And if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins.
18. Then they also which are fallen asleep in Christ are perished.
19. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.
20. But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept.
21. For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead.
22. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.

The Apostle Paul clearly says that if Jesus Christ did not rise from the dead, as the discovery of his bones would prove, then the entire Christian faith is wrong. This means that unlike other religions Christianity is falsifiable.

So the claims of The Lost Tomb of Jesus are important because, if correct, they would falsify Christianity.

Christian responses

Since the claims of The Lost Tomb of Jesus strike at the heart of Christianity, it is necessary to respond, but only in an appropriate manner.

Poor responses

While Christians need to respond to these claims, a bad response is worst than no response at all.

The worst possible response would be to attack those who produced and broadcast the film, such as by accusing them of attacking the Christian faith or boycotting them or the program's sponsors. Now, it may be true that their intent is to attack the Christian faith, but such responses would only serve to give credence to their claims. There is nothing those who hate Christians would love more than to see a crowd of Christians storming Discovery Channel headquarters like an angry mob.

Another poor response would be, “These can’t be the bones of Jesus Christ; after all he rose from the dead.” While this would be a natural first reaction it is not a proper response because it constitutes circular reasoning. This is the type of response hoped for by those who hate Christians.

Proper response

A proper response will be based on an objective look at the evidence presented showing where the film's claims do and do not work. A calm, objective look at the facts, both those presented and omitted by the film makers is what is needed. Only such a response would have credibility with non-Christians and continue to show that the Christian faith is a reasonable faith.


The tomb was discovered in 1980 in Israel by construction workers, about 3 miles south of Jerusalem, in the Talpiot neighborhood. It contained 10 ossuaries, 6 of which had names on them along with 3 skulls. The tomb also contained the bones of an estimated 35 individuals, 17 of which were found inside the 10 ossuaries and were 18 found out side them no known records seem to have been kept showing the contents of the ossuaries. The condition of the tomb suggests that it is a multigenerational tomb. Unfortunately the bones were reburied in unmarked graves in accordance with Orthodox Jewish beliefs shortly after being removed from the tomb.

The claimed story

To credibly claim that Jesus's body was in the Talpiot tomb requires a theory of how it got from the tomb of Joseph of Aramathea to the Talpiot tomb. The theory presented by the film is far from new: in fact, it is a variation on the first theory invented to explain away the resurrection, presented in Matthew’s Gospel. The film's theory is that the disciples moved His body by night from Joseph's tomb to the Talpiot tomb. The filmmakers added some additional details, but the theory is essentially the same as that invented by the chief priests within days of Christ’s resurrection.

Without this theory, the filmmakers do not have any case at all, since they can not place Jesus's body in this tomb any other way. Of all the theories devised in an effort to explain away the evidence of the resurrection, this one is the most reasonable, yet it is too flawed to be true. According to Matthew 27:62-66, the chief priests and Pharisees remembered that Jesus had said that he would rise again on the third day, and suspected that His disciples would try to steal the body and then claim that He had risen from the dead. To prevent this, they arranged for Roman governor Pilate to order both a seal and a guard on the tomb until after the third day to prevent exactly what the film makers want us to believe happened.

Now these guards were highly motivated to stay awake and keep everyone away form the tomb, since failing to do so would result in their executions. Not only that, but had His disciples tried such a stunt and failed, they would have been put to death. According to all four Gospels, Jesus’ disciples were afraid for their lives and in disarray. They were hardly in a condition to pull off such a stunt.

Most of these men (10 of the 11 remaining apostles) died for their claim that Jesus rose from the dead. If the film's claim were true, they died for what they knew was a lie. The film is asking us to believe that Jesus's disciples were smart enough to get past a bunch of Roman solders but then foolish enough to die for the lie that He had risen from the dead.

The Names

As stated above, 6 of the 10 ossuaries had names on them. The subheadings below are the names as presented by the film and book. The names and the accuracy of their translation and interpretation is at the heart of this issue, for without them, the proponents of this claim would have absolutely nothing.

Jesus son of Joseph

This inscription in its messy Aramaic script appears to read, "Yeshua bar Yehosef". Without this inscription there would be no story.

Yeshua was a rather common first century name, being the Aramaic equivalent of Joshua, the name of the Jewish leader of the conquest of land from the Canaanites. In fact, at least one other ossuary has been found with the inscription "Yeshua bar Yehosef".

Furthermore, Jesus' disciples never referred to Jesus as the "son of Joseph." Not only is there no mention of them ever doing so in four Gospels, but they did not believe Him to be the son of Joseph. If Jesus had not been resurrected, a more likely inscription would have been “Jesus of Nazareth.”

According to National Geographic News, the president of Jerusalem's University of the Holy Land, Stephen Pfann, said of this inscription:

"I don't think it says Yehoshua [Jesus]. It says Hanun or something," Pfann said, after viewing high-resolution images of the ossuary inscription in question.

As an expert in Semitic languages, Pfann is destroying the film's central claim with this one statement, since it eliminates Jesus from the equation.


The film makers allege that this Mary is the Mother of Jesus. First of all there is no evidence of a maternal relationship between this Mary and the Jesus of this tomb. Mary was an extremely common name making up about ¼ of the Jewish woman of the day. So the only reason to suppose that this Mary is the mother of the Jesus of this tomb, it that Jesus Christ’s mother’s name was Mary. So one only can conclude a maternal relationship here if one assumes that the Jesus of this tomb is Jesus Christ: a circular argument.

What is odd about this inscription is while it is written in Aramaic, it is a transliteration of Maria which is a Latin version of the Hebrew name "Miriam". This is rather unusual but does not point to this Mary being the mother of Jesus Christ. While Mary may have been known as Maria among Gentiles, if she were buried near Jerusalem it would have been Jewish believers and family that would have buried her, and they would have used the Hebrew name "Miriam”. It is quite possible that the Mary from the Talpiot had a Gentile parent and as a result used the Latinized version “Maria”. This would explain the dichotomy of the inscription, but would not have made her Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ.


The actual inscription is the diminutive form of "Joseph", “Yose” ("Joses" in Greek) is name of one Jesus' half brothers. (Mark 6:3). However, there is no evidence that this Joseph was the tomb’s Jesus’ brother. On the contrary, since his father’s name was Joseph, it more likely that this Joseph is his father rather than his brother. This, however, would go against the premises that this Jesus was Jesus Christ since that Joseph would probably have been buried near Nazareth. The only reason to suppose that this Joseph was the tomb’s Jesus’ brother rather than father is to assume that he was Jesus Christ, another circular argument. If this Joseph is the father, then the film's claim is false.

Judah son of Jesus

This is actually a strike against this tomb have anything to do with Christ’s family, since there no sign of this Judah in any source what so ever. The only Judah associated with Christ’s immediate family be one of his half brothers. The total lack of any reference to this Judah not only in the New Testament but in the apocryphal New Testament writings as well including the Gnostic texts makes good case against this Judah not being the son of Jesus Christ and thus against the Jesus of the Talpiot tomb being Jesus Christ. One would expect some reference him some place, but he does not even show up in legend, even only as the son of Mary Magdalene.

In an effort to find some kind of reference to this Judah the film makers need to twist John 19:25-27.

John 19: 25. Now there stood by the cross of Jesus his mother, and his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Cleophas, and Mary Magdalene.
26. When Jesus therefore saw his mother, and the disciple standing by, whom he loved, he saith unto his mother, Woman, behold thy son!
27. Then saith he to the disciple, Behold thy mother! And from that hour that disciple took her unto his own home.

The film claims that when Christ said, “Woman, behold thy son!” he speaking to Mary Magdalene and when he said, “Behold thy mother!” he was speaking to their son Judah. This “interpretation” assumes that disciple, whom he loved what his son Judah.

This “interpretation” is totally without merit. First off, it is clear from the context of the entire gospel account is that John’s use of the term "disciple, whom he loved," is a reference to himself, essentially contradicting the filmmaker’s interpretation.

  1. Verse 25 refers to both “his mother” [Jesus's mother] and Mary Magdalene.
  2. Verse 26 specifically states that Jesus was talking to His mother.
  3. Verse 27 indicates that after this the disciple takes Mary into “his own home”. If she had been his real mother this would be a given.

Mary Magdalene

This is the only inscription written in Greek. If she was, as the film claims, the wife of the Jesus in this tomb why is Jesus' name in Aramaic and Mary Magdalene's in Greek? It is laughable because the actual inscription does not say Mary Magdalene, so any connection of this ossuary to that of Mary Magdalene's is conjecture at best.

The film renders the inscription as "Mariamene e Mara," meaning Mary the teacher. Director Simcha Jacobovici stated that this rendering was crucial to his case for the tomb belonging to Jesus, since Mariamene was not commonly used, and denotes respect.

The name Mariamene is connected to Mary Magdalene by way of a similar name "Mariamne" is found in the apocryphal writing called the Acts of Philip. In no place in is it identified as Mary Magdalene, nor is there anything that would suggest that she is Mary Magdalene.

This connection comes from Francois Bovon, professor of the history of religion at Harvard University, who suggested this based on his study that concludes Mariamene, or Mariamne, was the actual name of Mary Magdalene. A key problem with this claim is the fact that the only manuscript of the Acts of Philip dates to the 14th century while the actual writing of the book is thought to date to the 4th century, placing it about 300 years after Mary Magdalene’s death. Every reference to Mary Magdalene in the New Testament book which date from the 1st century says “Maria Magdalene” (μαρια μαγδαληνη). So it is most likely that her ossuary would be inscribed as “Maria Magdalene” not Mariamene e Mara. Any other conclusion would be to disregard biblical texts and assume that the inscription was being accurately interpreted in the film. Both bases are flawed however.

Stephen Pfann, textual scholar and paleographer for the University of the Holy Land (Jerusalem) has shown that the ossurary's inscription actually reads Mariame kai Mara meaning "Mary and Martha." This indicates that there were at least two set of remains in this ossurary and totally eliminates any connection to Mary Magdalene. Pfann was also quoted as saying the documentary fudged some other facts. [1] [2] [3] [4]


The actual inception reads “Matya” which is Hebrew for “Matthew”. Now it is not claimed that this is the Apostle Matthew. The filmmakers point to fact that Luke shows that Jesus’ mother Mary had relatives named Matthew. While it is true she had ancestors (possibly grandfather) with the name "Matthat", none of them could be this Matthew so he has no known connection to Jesus’ family.

Statistical Analysis

The basis of the statistical claim is a calculation done by the professor of statistics and mathematics at the University of Toronto, Andrey Feuerverger. He takes into account the likelihood of the names found in the Talpiot tomb, and being found together by coincidence alone. The fraction 1/x indicates that the name is found once out of x times a name appears.

Jesus son of Joseph Mariamne Yose Maria Product
1/190 1/160 1/20 1/4 1/2,432,000

He next multiplied this product by 4 to account for any bias in the historical record to get 1/608,000. Finally he multiplied that result by 1,000 to account for the number of tombs discovered in the area resulting in a figure of 1/608. It was then rounded to 1/600.

The film makers interpret this as meaning that the odds are 600 to 1 in favor of this being Jesus Christ’s family tomb. What it actually means is that an additional 600 tombs would need to be found before one would expect to see this combination again.

The above calculation would only be valid if, “Mariamne,” is an accurate interpretation of the inscription and that it also does indeed refer to Mary Magdalene, which is at best highly questionable. If she is eliminated from the calculations the results are as follows:

Jesus son of Joseph Yose Maria Product
1/190 1/20 1/4 1/15,200

If you multiply the product by 4 yields 1/3,800. If you multiply this product by 1,000, it yields 1/3.8 or about ¼.

Given the uncertainty of the original fractions, this figure is probably within the margin of error and therefore statistically meaningless. The result is that statistics do not provide evidence that this is the tomb of Jesus and His family.

DNA Evidence

Mitochondrial DNA ( mtDNA ) has been recovered from 2 of the ossuaries. The comparison was done between the so called “Jesus son of Joseph” and “Mary Magdalene” ossuaries. The negative results were used by the film makers to support their claim that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were husband and wife. However all these results show is that they that are not maternally related, that is they were not mother-son or brother-sister. This does not not show they were married, since the same results would be consistent with: father-daughter, brother-in-law - sister-in-law, paternal aunt–nephew, paternal uncle–niece, half brother–half sister (with common father), or no relation at all. In fact, in a multi-generational tomb such as this, the odds would be against finding mtDNA matches between any two random sets of remains. It would be even more of a problem if there were more than one skeleton in some ossuaries as seems to be the case with one claimed to be Mary Magdalene’s ossuary. The most this DNA evidence can do is show that the two individuals are neither mother-son nor brother-sister; DNA can't test for marriage. What the filmmakers would have needed for positive support is the mtDNA from the “Judah son of Jesus” ossuary that matched that alleged to belong to Mary Magdalene. Since they don’t have that DNA, then the DNA evidence they found is meaningless.

The James ossuary

Main Article: James Ossuary

The James Ossuary is an ossuary, reportedly found in Israel, with an inscription that translates as “James brother of Jesus”. Its discovery was reported in October of 2002 by the Biblical Archaeology Review.

The film claims that the James ossuary is a missing 10th ossuary and uses a patina comparison to make their case; however, they do not seem to have made the data available out side the film where it can be readily examined.

One flaw in this claim is that the 10th ossuary was described at the time of its discovery as plain, with no inscription at all. So if the James Ossuary were the 10th ossuary, it's inscription would be a fake and thus irrelevant.

According to Amos Kloner, the archaeologist who led the Israel Antiquities Authority's 1980 excavation of the Talpiot Tomb, none of the ossuaries is missing. The 10th ossuary, being plain and unscripted, was simply placed in the courtyard to save space. This is routinely done with plain and unscripted ossuaries.

Yet another problem is that the the James Ossuary was in court to be in a photo taken at Golan's home in 1970 as verified by an FBI photo lab. Jacobovici, when asked about this photo, suggested that the picture was simply taken with 1970 film.

One final problem is that the James Ossuary is described in Biblical Archaeology Review as 50.5 cm X 25 cm X 30.5 cm while the 10th ossuary is described as 60cm X 26cm X 30cm. The 9.5 cm different in length shows that the James Ossuary cannot be the 10th ossuary.

Miscellaneous issues

There are some side issues that were not raised in the film that need to be addressed since they have a bearing on the authority of the claims presented there in.

Family issues

Tombs like the Talpiot tomb were expensive and as such could only be afforded by upper middle to upper class families. However Jesus family was poor or at best lower middle class, such that such a tomb would have been beyond their means.

Even if they could have afforded such a tomb, there is no reason to suspect that they would have had one near Jerusalem. Jesus’ immediate family was from Nazareth and they may have had extended family in Bethlehem, so if they had such a tomb it would have been near one these cities and not Jerusalem. Even if Jesus’ family eventually moved to Jerusalem, they did not live there at the time that Christ was crucified and as such they would not have had a local tomb to bury Him in.

Bones not available

A major difficulty with the claims of this film is the fact that bones found in the Talpiot Tomb are not available for study. As stated above; after being removed from the tomb the bones were reburied in unmarked graves in accordance with Orthodox Jewish beliefs shortly after being removed from the tomb.

If the bones were available those from the “Jesus ossuary” could be checked for evidence of crucifixion and the age at death could be estimated then the claim that they are the bones of Christ could be tested. If the bones gave no indication of death by crucifixion at about age 33 then then claims of the film would be proven wrong.

If the bones were available there would be sufficient DNA so that the relationships of the occupants of the tomb could be determined.

Unfortunately the fact the the bones are not available means that the evidence best suited for testing these claims is missing.


The claims of this film clearly do not stand up to scrutiny. As shown above, most of claims are easily shown to be false when compared with the known facts which are conveniently left out of the film.

In particular, the most important parts of the film’s claims are easily shown to be wrong. For example, the James Ossuary can not be the Talpiot tomb’s 10th ossuary because of the differences in the lengths of the two boxes. The most fatal facts to the film’s claims are that the two most important ossuary inscriptions; those alleged to belong to Jesus and Mary Magdalene; don’t seem to say what the film claims. These facts are sufficient to show those claims to be false.

The result is that when the film’s claims are held up to the light of the facts, they are clearly shown to be wrong.

See Also